AUGUSTA — Julie Gilbert is reaching out to a familiar face from the past to bring something both new and traditional to the annual Penney Memorial Christmas Cantata.
Gilbert is choir director of the free annual cantata, a multi-faceted concert featuring the choir, children’s choir, soloists and this year’s special guest performers, the Cony Madrigals. She first participated as a singer in the choir at the first such event, 25 years ago, under then-choir director Robert Wyllie.
This year’s 25th anniversary event will feature a Southern gospel take on traditional Christmas music, as well as the return of the event’s creator, Wyllie.
“I’m honored to have an opportunity to direct one of the numbers they’re going to be doing. That was Julie’s idea, I appreciate it,” said Wyllie, 84, of Warren, who started playing the organ at Penney Memorial in 1968 and started the annual Christmas concert in 1987. “Some of the people singing in the choir sang when I directed the Living Christmas Tree. It will be nice to renew acquaintances.”
The annual cantata at the Water Street church begun some 25 years ago has changed over the years. For starters, the large wooden Living Christmas Tree, which used to hold up to 46 singers on multiple platforms in a tree-shaped towering structure, is no longer used. Gilbert said they stopped using it a few years ago because it took two days of work to erect it, and the people involved in helping with that were aging and it was hard to find new participants to help out.
However, many aspects of the annual event at Penney Memorial United Baptist Church and the people who help pull it off haven’t changed.
“It’s a wonderful time. It’s one of the few times where we all get together as friends and family and sing together,” Gilbert said. “It’s still the same group of people. We just don’t form a tree. This was, and is, for the community. It’s at the church, but really it’s an outreach to the entire community. Everybody is welcome.”
Wyllie will direct “Silent Night,” which he used to close the concerts he directed for about 10 years, starting in 1987.
“I felt it was time to reach back and connect,” Gilbert said of Wyllie. “He’s the most energetic person you’ll meet. It feels good to go back.”
Wyllie oversaw the Living Christmas Tree, now called Christmas Cantata, concerts for about 10 years before Gilbert took over as choir director. He then moved on to a church in Thomaston, much closer to his Warren home, where he started another Living Christmas Tree, which he said is still active and just underwent its 16th annual performance.
The Penney Memorial Christmas Cantata is scheduled for Sunday with shows at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Gilbert said one challenge is keeping the annual event fresh. This year the new twist to the Christmas theme is the Southern gospel music. Organizers and performers spend about seven weeks getting ready for the cantata, and the performances are well-attended.
“There will be some spirituals and some Christmas carols people know, but we’ll do them in a new way,” Gilbert said.
Keith Edwards — 621-5647